Branson Sets up Straw Man as Attempt to Reach Space Looms

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

In promoting an upcoming flight test of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that is intended to reach space, Richard Branson has set up a straw man as a critic that he will gleefully knock down should the vehicle lands safely back on Runway 12-30 in Mojave later this month.

“I obviously would love to prove our critics wrong, and I’m reasonably confident that before Christmas, we will do so,” he told CNN’s Rachel Crane in a video interview.

It’s a strange formulation that, for some unknown reason, Crane accepts at face value. But, it’s utterly pointless for understanding what the concerns are with Branson’s 14-year old human spaceflight program.

Nobody has said that SpaceShipTwo can’t reach some definition of space. It was designed to fly to at least the 50-mile boundary set by the U.S. Air Force for awarding astronaut wings to X-15 pilots during the 1960’s. Fifty miles is the minimum altitude customers are promised in their signed agreements. If it can’t do that, Virgin Galactic should stop calling itself a spaceline and start refunding deposits.

The only question has been whether the ship can reach the 100 km (62.1 miles) boundary known as the Karman line. While the passenger agreement stipulates 50 miles, the company used to advertise flights well over the Karman line.

Back in 2014, Virgin officials confirmed reports that SpaceShipTwo couldn’t get that high, but they pointed to the lower 50-mile boundary as proof the vehicle would fly to space. Reliably reports indicate they have been promising ticket holders flights to 55 miles in recent years.

Perhaps in the intervening years, engineers have improved the rocket engine and it can reach the 62-mile boundary. If so, great. But, it doesn’t prove critics wrong about anything given the company’s past admissions.

But, there’s a bigger problem with Branson’s straw man. And that has to do with Virgin Galactic’s goal in building the vehicle.

SpaceShipTwo wasn’t built to explore supersonic and hypersonic flight regimes like the X-15. It wasn’t purpose built to win a $10 million prize like its predecessor, SpaceShipOne.

SpaceShipTwo was built to make suborbital space tourism and research flights frequent, routine, affordable and safe for non-professional astronauts. It will take many years before anyone knows whether Virgin Galactic will succeed at that task.

The company will have to conduct additional test flights. And then at 100 flights will be needed to work through its manifest of 600 ticket holders.

Nitrous oxide and cabin atmosphere vent from the disintegrating SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

A previous attempt by NASA to achieve the same goals with the space shuttle was not successful. The space agency proved it could fly the vehicle to and from space on a fairly regular basis and do some amazing things with it. But, the other goals were never achieved. And 14 astronauts lost their lives in flight.

A successful flight test to space this month will be a major milestone toward commercial flights. It should be duly celebrated and enshrined in the annals of the planet. But, the flight won’t prove anyone wrong because it’s not what people are skeptical about.

For the past 14 years, Branson’s tendency to get ahead of the program is has resulted in numerous missed deadlines and unfulfilled promises. It is the case again here. Knocking down a straw man is a lot easier than dealing honestly with the challenges ahead.